Entering the world of Pilgrim's Progress

Imagine you're about to go on a journey. You're not travelling in the padded seat of an aeroplane, across the globe to a foreign country, but in a time-machine, to another culture in another century. What's more, you're moving across dimensions into a spiritual plane, where everything happens on the level of the human soul.

Opening the first page of Pilgrim's Progress is like entering another world. Not just the mysterious world of a story, with its own characters and landscape, but also the world of another time, when Christians thought and wrote differently from us. It's a fascinating world, but because there might be a bit of culture shock, I'll give you a few hints about entering the world of Pilgrim's Progress:

  • Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory, a style which was once very popular, but which you may find strange at first. You'll be reading about Christian's journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, but it's not a physical journey from home to another place, it's a spiritual journey from this world to heaven. Like a long parable, it's a story told in pictures, where every character, place, event and object has a deeper meaning. You'll want to work out what things mean, and I'll help you with that, but make sure you also enjoy the adventure and beauty of the journey:
  • We ought not to be thinking "This green valley, where the shepherd boy is singing, represents humility"; we ought to be discovering, as we read, that humility is like that green valley. That way, moving always into the book, not out of it, from the concept to the image, enriches the concept. (C.S.Lewis "The vision of John Bunyan", in Roger Sharrock (ed.), The Pilgrim's Progress: A Casebook p.198)

  • Pilgrim's Progress occasionally uses other unfamiliar story-telling styles. If Christian is in a house, being shown into rooms with different pictures, you're in an emblem book like John Bunyan's A Book for Boys and Girls, where each picture has a deeper meaning: it's time to stop and reflect. If Christian is having an extended conversation with someone like Ignorance or Talkative, you're in a dialogue book, a way of expressing important or difficult ideas in an accessible form.

  • Pilgrim's Progress was written by a man of whom Spurgeon said, "Prick him, and he will bleed Bible". If your edition has Bunyan's Bible references, and if you take the time to look some up, you'll notice how many images and words come straight from the Bible. Keep a look out for typology, where Old Testament events are fulfilled in Christian's experience, like the Israelites' journey from the wilderness to the Promised Land.
  • Pilgrim's Progress draws on two main Biblical metaphors: wayfaring (the pilgrimage from this world to heaven) and warfaring (the battle with sin, the world and Satan). It will teach you how to be a pilgrim and a warrior. I know it helps me face my own journey and daily battles with hope, perseverance and courage. I've picked up lots of useful hints about how to travel and how to fight.
  • Pilgrim's Progress was written by a Puritan. The Puritans were our brothers and sisters in Christ, the reformed evangelicals of 16th and 17th century England. They loved Jesus with every fibre of their being, they longed to reform the church more, and they were absolutely passionate about serving God in every moment of life. I'll tell you more about them some time, so that you can understand Pilgrim's Progress better.
  • Pilgrim's Progress was written by John Bunyan. Did you notice that Pilgrim's Progress opens as the story of a "dream" of a man in a "den"? The man is John Bunyan, and the den is prison: he wrote Pilgrim's Progress while in jail for his faith. In my next post I'll tell you more about John Bunyan, for in many ways Pilgrim's Progress is his story, and as you get to know Bunyan, you'll understand Christian better.
  • Pilgrim's Progress is a story in two parts. Part I is the story of Christian, and Part II is the story of his wife, Christiana, their 4 children, and how they followed in his footsteps. Part II isn't widely read, but it's especially relevant to women, and it clears up some of the issues raised by Part I, so I encourage you to read it, if it's in your edition. Bunyan wrote it as a mature Christian pastor, so it has a lot to say about Christian community, about how pastors guide and protect the weak, and about how to care for struggling Christians.
  • Pilgrim's Progress is your story, and mine too. If you're a Christian, then like Christian and Christiana, you're travelling along the narrow path from this world to heaven, facing the same trials, wrong turns and battles. Don't just treat the book as an intellectual puzzle, but let it make its way into your heart, and change the way you live. John Bunyan invites you: "O then come hither / And lay my book, thy head, and heart together."

I'd love to hear from you about how you're finding Pilgrim's Progress so far. If you haven't started reading yet, what are you looking forward to (or not looking forward to!)? If you have started, how have you found the book so far? What are you enjoying about the way it's written? What are you finding difficult? Any questions so far?